To proclaim release to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind
To let the oppressed go free
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
That was God given task, the Spirit anointed task, Jesus explained in Nazareth to the people he had grown up with, that lay at the heart of the ministry he was just starting on.
And they all loved him for it.
“All spoke well of him and were amazed at the words of grace that came from his mouth.”
And then he went on to say something more.
“When they heard this all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
What did he say that so changed the mood that Sabbath day in Nazareth?
Jesus told two stories.
One was the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath. In the days of Elijah there was a severe famine and throughout Israel there were many widows who were in great need. But Elijah didn’t help any of them. The widow he helped was from beyond the borders of Israel, she was not Jewish, she was a foreigner.
The other story Jesus told was the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian commander who suffered from leprosy. In the days of Elisha leprosy was a scourge in Israel. Many throughout Israel suffered from what was at that time a frightening disease. But Elisha didn’t help any of them. The leprosy sufferer he did help was from beyond the borders of Israel, he was not Jewish, he was a foreigner. Naaman was a commander of the Syrian Army to the North East of Israel.
The poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed Jesus had come to make a difference for were not just the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, of our people. Jesus had come to bring wholeness and release, salvation and redemption to all people, regardless of race, regardless of religion.
That was what those people in Nazareth could not take. When Jesus ‘passed through the midst of them and went on his way’ he went on his way to bring good news to Jew and Gentile alike, to all wherever they may be.
It is the inclusiveness of Jesus’ message, the world dimension of the good news he came to share, that drove the rest of his ministry, and drives the work of the church today.
Beware the Nazareth mindset that says it’s our poor, our captives, our blind, our oppressed that must be our priority.
Remember the Jesus mandate: for the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed not just of our people, our race, our religion, but of all people, every race and every religion.
I for one am with Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, when he warns of the dangers of the British National Party. What that party stands for is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, and it is important that we in the church are clear about that in our teaching, not least because as a party they are making a claim to Christianity for support.
God so loved the world. That is the heart of the Gospel we share.
The two stories Jesus used that day in Nazareth have something to say to us here at Highbury.
Five years ago we did a course and asked the question ‘Who are we?’ Who are we, the people who make up Highbury? Then let’s recognise that God has brought us together into this church family and he knows just who we are and what we are capable of. So each one of us was prompted to think of three things …
What am I passionate about as a Christian?
What gifts do I have that I can share?
What kind of a person am I? Up front, or in the background.
As that process came to an end Christmas was approaching and we decided to think of the Wise Men offering their treasures to Christ and so we put a ‘Treasure Chest’ on the wall. And we asked people to write the answers to those questions.
We then set about a process allowing the people we are, with our passions, our gifts and our own personalities, to shape the life of the church.
A fortnight ago at our Deacons Day Becky encouraged us to re-visit the plans we made as a result. And it was encouraging to see how much has come to fruition, not least in our work with children and young people, the appointment of Becky and the different ways we have followed in the administration of our church life.
But that was five years ago.
Those of us who put things into the treasure chest are now five years older … and in each of our lives much has happened. Circumstances have changed. We may have other things we are passionate about now. We may feel we have other gifts to share now. Circumstances may have changed us.
And in those five years it’s been great to welcome others to our church family too.
We need to think of what we, the people who make up our church, are passionate about, what gifts we have, what kind of people we are and harness those to the work of Christ’s kingdom in this place.
That’s where the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath comes in, that’s where the story of Elisha and Naaman, the Syrian Commander, comes in.
1 Kings 17:8-16
Then the Lord said to Elijah, “Now go to the town of Zarephath, near Sidon, and stay there. I have commanded a widow who lives there to feed you.” So Elijah went to Zarephath, and as he came to the gate of the town, he saw a widow gathering firewood. “Please bring me a drink of water,” he said to her. And as she was going to get it, he called out, “And please bring me some bread, too.”
She answered, “By the living Lord your God I swear that I haven't got any bread. All I have is a handful of flour in a bowl and a drop of olive oil in a jar. I came here to gather some firewood to take back home and prepare what little I have for my son and me. That will be our last meal, and then we will starve to death.”
“Don't worry,” Elijah said to her. “Go ahead and prepare your meal. But first make a small loaf from what you have and bring it to me, and then prepare the rest for you and your son. For this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘The bowl will not run out of flour or the jar run out of oil before the day that I, the Lord, send rain.’ ”
The widow went and did as Elijah had told her, and all of them had enough food for many days. As the Lord had promised through Elijah, the bowl did not run out of flour nor did the jar run out of oil.
50 years ago this year that story spoke to Margaret Torrie. A Quaker and a Peace Activist, she had a passion for the plight of widows for whom the state made very little provision, who had few property rights, and were often the victim of unscrupulous landlords. And so thinking of the Widow of Zarephath she set up an organisation to support initially widows in their bereavement. Over the last fifty years, the organisation she founded has become one of the biggest providers of support for all who are bereaved.
Elijah offered the widow in the story a promise from God – that God would sustain her and that his support would not stop – in the words of the Authorised Version so loved of Margaret Torrie, Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, ‘The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail …
So it was that the bereavement support group, Cruse, came into being. This year it celebrates its fiftieth anniversary and still it gives real support to people in bereavement.
Often it is the very adverse circumstances that perhaps initially make it impossible for us to share with others, that in the fullness of time, become the very thing that make it possible for us to share support in ways that before those circumstances had arisen were impossible.
It is that kind of mutual support that we are able to give one another in a church family such as ours that can make all the difference.
How good too to support Cruse with the expertise that they bring to bereavement care and counselling.
2 Kings 5
Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army, was highly respected and esteemed by the king of Syria, because through Naaman the Lord had given victory to the Syrian forces. He was a great soldier, but he suffered from a dreaded skin disease
In one of their raids against Israel, the Syrians had carried off a little Israelite girl, who became a servant of Naaman's wife. One day she said to her mistress, “I wish that my master could go to the prophet who lives in Samaria! He would cure him of his disease.” When Naaman heard of this, he went to the king and told him what the girl had said. The king said, “Go to the king of Israel and take this letter to him.”
So Naaman set out, taking 30,000 pieces of silver, 6,000 pieces of gold, and ten changes of fine clothes. The letter that he took read: “This letter will introduce my officer Naaman. I want you to cure him of his disease.”
When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes in dismay and exclaimed, “How can the king of Syria expect me to cure this man? Does he think that I am God, with the power of life and death? It's plain that he is trying to start a quarrel with me!”
When the prophet Elisha heard what had happened, he sent word to the king: “Why are you so upset? Send the man to me, and I'll show him that there is a prophet in Israel!”
So Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and stopped at the entrance to Elisha's house. Elisha sent a servant out to tell him to go and wash himself seven times in the River Jordan, and he would be completely cured of his disease. But Naaman left in a rage, saying, “I thought that he would at least come out to me, pray to the Lord his God, wave his hand over the diseased spot, and cure me! Besides, aren't the rivers Abana and Pharpar, back in Damascus, better than any river in Israel? I could have washed in them and been cured!”
His servants went up to him and said, “Sir, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, you would have done it. Now why can't you just wash yourself, as he said, and be cured?” So Naaman went down to the Jordan, dipped himself in it seven times, as Elisha had instructed, and he was completely cured. His flesh became firm and healthy, like that of a child.
The whole point of the Naaman story is that he is a very important person. Commander of the army of the King of Aram, he was a great man and in high favour with his master.
But, great though he is, he is not exempt from the world’s woes. He suffers from leprosy.
There is one person who can help him. If only he will listen.
It is the last person you would expect him to listen to.
It is someone who has been captured by his army, so it’s an enemy. As if that’s not bad enough, it’s a woman. As if that’s not bad enough, it’s a young woman, one who is no more than a girl.
He does listen to her. And with more ups and downs in the story, he eventually meets Elisha, and very reluctantly does what he is asked, and after washing seven times in the river Jordan he is healed of his leprosy.
It is one of those lovely Old Testament stories.
And it hinges on someone very important listening to a young girl, a child.
Becky has joined us to focus on work with families and children.
It is very easy to think of that as a one way thing. We are the grown-ups. We are the ones who count in this church family. We will look after our children and do as much as we can for them. And it’s great Becky has joined us … isn’t she doing such a good job.
But Becky wants us to do something else. She wants us to put ourselves in the position of Naaman and listen to our children. What are they saying to us?
2009 is the Year of the Child. The bible verse that goes with it is from psalm 78 verse 4. We will tell the next generation… That’s all very well. But will we listen to the next generation as well?
The Next Generation – hear the voices of children